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By Derek Humphry
What’s in a word? Is saying ‘suicide’ as in ‘assisted suicide’ preferable, or is it better to use an euphemism like ‘assisted dying’?

From the start in l980 we at the Hemlock Society always bluntly called the medical helping to die procedures ‘physician-assisted suicide’ and, when carried out alone, ‘self-deliverance’. We stressed that we were talking purely about end-of-life choices when terminal, not self-killing for other reasons.

The Associated Press, one of the world’s largest news agencies,has a standing policy of always using ‘assisted suicide’ and forbids

euphemisms. Europeans groups continually use ‘assisted suicide’ and ‘euthanasia’ without hesitation.

But from around 2000, some persons in US began to campaign for ‘assisted suicide’ to be dropped in favor of ‘assisted dying’ and similar terms. In citizen ballot initiatives the softer term was always used. Common nowadays is Medical Aid in Dying (MAID).

Some of the new sensitivity to the word ‘suicide’ was caused by Dr Jack Kevorkian’s work from l989 onwards. Helping some 130 people to die with his so-called ‘suicide machine’ was continuously headline news. Medical and public opinion was seriously divided on whether Kevorkian’s campaign was a good or a bad thing. His name became a lightning rod.
For legal clarity, the Final Exit Network avoids ‘assisted suicide’ usage and tends to speak of ‘choices in dying’.

Personally, I don’t think ‘physician-assisted suicide’ is a detrimental term in itself. It means a self-chosen death with medical aid. Because we are all surprised and saddened by persons who precipitately kill themselves doesn’t — to me — make suicide a loaded word. There have been suicides throughout human history; the Bible speaks of four such, without condemnation. As the old cliché goes: ‘Call a spade a spade.’

As a writer I use all the terms which are now fashionable because it helps the variety of my prose. Yet in all my communications, if a person uses ‘assisted dying’ to me then I politely respond with that term.

I have never found that our opponents gained much capital about the words ‘assisted suicide’ — just one of their rather lame arguments. But it is true that in opinion polls people are more receptive to voting affirmatively when the term ‘medical assisted dying’ was used in questions.

As Rebecca Solnit in her book Men Explain Things to Me says: “You can use the power of words to bury meaning or to excavate it.”
Derek Humphry is the author of ‘Final Exit: The Practicalities of Self-Deliverance and Assisted Suicide for the Dying” and four other books on choices in dying.

One Response to “Use the term ‘assisted suicide’ or ‘assisted dying’ ?”

  1. […] Derek Humphry wrote about the words we use to discuss end-of-life concerns in the US, focusing on the appropriateness […]

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